By Denis Fortin  |  27 August 2018  |

That the Seventh-day Adventist Church is currently facing a governance crisis is an understatement. Recent conversations over women’s ordination have highlighted major differences of understanding of the role of various levels of organization in the decision-making process of the church.

Since the beginning, the Christian Church has used various models of church governance. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have long held to an episcopal polity. Since the Reformation, Protestant churches have followed three main types of church governance: (1) the episcopal model (Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, United Methodist); (2) the presbyterian model (Presbyterian, Reformed); and (3) the congregational model (Baptist, Pentecostal, United Church of Christ, Mennonite).[1]

Our Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Belief No. 12 says in part that “The church is the community of believers who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.”[2] Although the statement describes the church as a community and lists some of its activities, it omits any reference to governance structure. The Church Manual is more explicit in describing the Adventist governance system, but it doesn’t say which of the traditional models it most resembles.[3]

Some say that the dominant model in Seventh-day Adventist church governance is presbyterian, though in reality it uses elements and characteristics of all three systems.[4] In my opinion, the episcopal model is the dominant one in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and one cause of our current crisis is that we have not clearly recognized this.

The Episcopal Model

The episcopal polity has been the prevailing form of church governance for most of Christian history. This model says that Christ entrusted authority and the government of the church directly to the apostles, who in turn entrusted it to their successors. Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans have said that bishops are the legitimate successors of the apostles. The role of the bishop is therefore to exercise the power of God, which has been vested in him (or her, in some Protestant churches).

The bishop governs and cares for a group of churches, rather than one local congregation, and has authority over pastoral placement. This regional overseer preserves the true faith and church order within a particular area. The episcopal model offers a clear organizational structure and system of authority and delegation of authority.[5] The dominant understanding of unity in this system is visible unity, which is manifested when lower organizations belong to a higher organization and follow the regulations of the higher organization.

The New Testament function of overseer (Greek, episkopos) is described in the pastoral letters of Paul (Titus 1:7; 1 Tim. 3:1-2). But it is Ignatius of Antioch who, in the early part of the second century, first gave shape to the role of the bishop.[6] In his letters, Ignatius advocates a typology of heavenly hierarchy in each local community: the bishop represents God the Father, the council of presbyters (or elders) represents the council of apostles, and deacons represent Jesus in their servant ministry (see Matt. 20:25-27). Since without a bishop the local church cannot function or even exist, the bishop is constitutive of the whole congregation, and perfect unity is manifested in obedience to this leader.

One other important feature of the episcopal model is its three levels of ordination. The deacon, presbyter (priest or elder), and bishop each have a distinct ordination service for different functions and hierarchical authority. The bishop is superior to the presbyter, who is superior to the deacon. For some episcopal churches, ordination imparts a qualitative change to the human nature of the bishop and the priest, placing him in the category of clergy and giving him spiritual gifts to perform the sacraments of the church. The sacraments are valid only if performed by a priest/pastor with the presence or consent of a bishop. In this system, the headship of Christ is manifested at the highest level, through the leaders of the church when they make decisions.

The Presbyterian Model

The presbyterian system of governance places primary authority in the office of elder and upon representative councils, which exercise that authority. The primary church leader is the elder, either lay (ruling elder) or employed by the church (teaching elder, or pastor). In this model the terms elder (presbyteros) and bishop (episkopos) are used interchangeably and describe the same function of pastor or overseer (Titus 1:5, 7; Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Pet. 5:1-2). Elders are representatives of the people and are not ontologically (by nature) different from lay persons. Their ordination does not give them any special qualitative or spiritual characteristics that place them above the rest of God’s people. Their role is functional: to serve the people and the church.

The concepts undergirding the presbyterian model are collegiality, collaboration, interdependence, and goodwill. Local churches are administered by a council of elders, and each congregation belongs to a larger body, such as a presbytery or synod, which is administered by a council of elders and lay persons. All of the presbyteries (synods, conferences) meet regularly in a general assembly. Its pattern for church governance is the Jerusalem council of Acts 15.

It is in these councils and assemblies that the will of God is expressed and the Lordship of Jesus is found. Authority in the presbyterian model flows both from the top down, as higher councils exercise limited but important authority over individual congregations within a presbytery (for example, only the presbytery can ordain ministers, appoint pastors, and start or close a congregation) and from the bottom up (for example, the moderator and officers are not appointed from above but, rather, are elected by the representatives of congregations in the presbytery).[7] The moderator, or leader of the presbytery, is usually elected for only one term. She or he serves as chair of the council meetings and has no real authoritative function outside of these meetings.

Congregationalism

Congregationalism is characteristic of denominations within the “free” church tradition, such as Baptist, Pentecostal, and nondenominational churches, as well as most megachurches. This model stresses the autonomy of the local congregation and the role of the individual Christian in its operations. Because the local church is the ultimate seat of authority over doctrinal beliefs, discipline, and operations, this system stresses democratic participation. Local congregations can belong to a larger body of churches (such as the Southern Baptist Convention, for some congregational Baptist churches), but such ties are mostly an association or fellowship. Congregational churches usually have only two levels of ministry: the deacon and the elder, with the pastor functioning as an elder. The local parishioners make decisions regarding organizational structure, membership, and leadership.

Each model has its strengths. According to Southern Baptist seminar professor Gregg Allison, the episcopal model offers a clear and well-structured system of authority, a leadership that is dedicated to the care of pastors, a national or even worldwide communion that offers a visible sign of unity, and an office (the bishop) that defends doctrinal orthodoxy and church orthopraxis. The presbyterian model offers local churches accountability to the larger church with a system of checks and balances, and it values cooperation and interdependence between churches.[8] The congregational model values the participation of each member in the mission of the church (priesthood of all believers), the freedom to do its own local mission activities, and the direct headship of Christ over the local church.

The Adventist Hybrid

Seventh-day Adventist church organization is a mix of all three traditional models. It follows the congregational model in giving local Adventist congregations responsibility for church membership and baptism, ecclesiastical discipline, and local mission activities. In addition, Adventist liturgy and worship is similar to many congregational churches with nonliturgical and nonsacramental traditions.

The presbyterian attributes are reflected in the honorific title Adventists use for church leaders (“elder”) as well as the conference system that governs through committees and policies. The local churches belong to a conference, which provides oversight to the congregations. The conference owns church properties and also appoints and ordains pastors.

Yet the episcopal model of the United Methodist Church in the United States comes closer to the traditional Adventist governance structure, with its organization and hierarchical authority structure. The Adventist conference resembles the diocese of episcopal churches, and the conference president, although not called or ordained as a bishop, exercises many of the functions of an episcopal bishop. The fact that presidents of the various hierarchical bodies within the Adventist structure (conference, union, division, and General Conference) can serve an unlimited number of terms is a mark of episcopalism, as are our three levels of ordination (deacon, elder, pastor).

Another mark of episcopalism is the adoption of fundamental beliefs by the highest organizational level (for Adventists, this happens during a session of the General Conference—often described as “the voice of God” or “the highest authority of God on earth”). Church policies are adopted at higher levels and require compliance at the lower levels. The system of checks and balances between various levels is highly efficient and well designed, and compliance with policies and regulations is fundamental to visible unity.

In distinction from the Roman Catholic or Anglican systems, Seventh-day Adventists have no concept of bishops in apostolic succession, nor do we give our presidents sole constitutive authority to make the church or to create visible unity through the sacraments. Methodist and Adventist systems function with representative assemblies made up of pastors and lay people, and they are less focused on the role and function of one person—a mark of the Protestant “priesthood of all believers” characteristic of the presbyterian system.

Yet the roles of Adventist church leaders are strangely akin to those of the episcopal bishops. According to our Church Manual, the conference president is responsible for the oversight of all pastors and all churches within the conference. “He stands at the head of the gospel ministry in the conference and is the chief elder, or overseer, of all the churches. He works for their spiritual welfare and counsels them regarding their activities and plans.”[9] He has access to all local congregations’ meetings, record books, and reports.[10] He should be present at the organization or dissolving of congregations.[11] In the absence of a pastor, the conference president gives permission for a lay elder to baptize new members, preside over the Lord’s Supper, or perform marriage ceremonies.[12] When a person seeks to join the Seventh-day Adventist church by profession of faith rather than by baptism, the conference president should be consulted ahead of time.[13] The president also authorizes non-Adventist speakers in local churches.[14]

Ordination in the Seventh-day Adventist church also displays some episcopal characteristics. Historically, Adventists have utilized three hierarchical levels of ordination. The local church is responsible for the first two levels (deacon and elder), while the conference is responsible for the third level (pastor). Since ordination for pastoral ministry is also understood as qualification for worldwide ministry, the General Conference determines policies and qualifications for ordination.

Adventist ordination resembles apostolic succession in that only other ordained ministers can perform the ceremony; unordained laity are not typically invited to be part of the ordination prayer. Additionally, only an ordained minister can take the function of a conference president (a point of contention among us), and since thus far our church policy allows only for men to be ordained, our denomination resembles other episcopal churches with male-only leadership. No wonder, then, that Adventists might understand ordination to give a qualitative mark of authority and ministry on those ordained.

Furthermore, since a pastor is ordained for life, regardless of his function within the church, the tendency toward upward authority has been a key feature of Adventist culture, which is encouraged also by its upward remuneration scale and privileges. In a traditional episcopal ethos, leaders at a given level of church governance are usually selected from the ordained leaders in the lower levels, and these leadership positions do not have term limits. The role of the Adventist conference president is analogous to an episcopal bishop appointed for life, rather than the typical presbyterian moderator who serves usually only one term and then returns to pastoral ministry.

So while the Seventh-day Adventist governance structure reflects presbyterian characteristics with its councils and committees, interdependence, checks and balances, as well as the involvement of lay people in its governance, the roles and functions of its leaders, along with its understanding and practice of a hierarchical ordination, reflect an episcopal polity.

This dissonance is significant: Adventist lay members think they are involved in a presbyterian governance structure, while the leaders function within an episcopal structure.

Strains in Church Governance

The current tensions in Seventh-day Adventist ecclesiology over the ordination of women to pastoral ministry (or, for some, to discontinue ordination altogether)[15] are a result of conflict between these three models of church governance.

At odds with the dominant episcopal governance structure, which considers the role of its ministers and leaders as crucial to its survival and authority structures, is Adventism’s original presbyterian impulse that sees the role of the ordained minister as functional rather than sacramental, as in the New Testament’s priesthood of all believers. The Adventist minister does not dispense the saving grace of God through sacraments, since Adventists practice ordinances. This is also evident when one considers that most of the functions of an Adventist ordained minister can be performed by a commissioned minister or even a lay elder.[16]

Even more obvious is the recent impulse toward decentralization in some union conferences. They reason that since lower organizations decide who is to be ordained, they are also responsible to interpret or apply denominational policies as they see best within their own contexts.

The tension between centralized and decentralized authority is nothing new. At the General Conference Sessions of 1901 and 1903, the centralization of authority in the General Conference was implemented when various semi-independent ministries of the church became departments of the General Conference and local conferences. The same executive committee would provide leadership and management oversight for all of these ministries within a given region. Yet, at the same time, this centralized authority was counterbalanced with the creation of union conferences with their own semi-independent boards and constituencies. And all of the unions together would form the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Over time, the General Conference Executive Committee has reclaimed much of the authority that the creation of union conferences was intended to diffuse,[17] such as by the creation of the divisions of the General Conference. Our church structures have evolved from a congregationalist system (before the organization of local conferences and the General Conference in the early 1860s) to a hybrid presbyterian/episcopal system in the last decades of the 19th century, and finally to a more hierarchical and episcopal system by mid-20th century.

What Next?

Is all of this leading us to an inevitable schism? Not if we take advantage of the best features of our ecclesiology. One of the assets of our hybrid episcopal system—our common belief in a single mission—is a strong antidote to schism. But preventing a schism, or even a large exodus of members, will require action from our dominant centralized episcopal structure: to re-embrace the important presbyterian and congregationalist aspects in our history.

Here are five suggestions.

First, some church entities might benefit from less rigid ties with the General Conference structure—and I don’t think we need to be afraid of that. Adventism can remain within one worldwide structure as long as we understand that true unity is first a spiritual unity of common mission and belief, not just a visible unity within an organizational structure. Trying to impose the latter by means of policies has always been counterproductive. Loosening these ties will require wisdom, trust, and generosity, but I believe that in the end it would actually strengthen our mission and ministry.

Second, we can remain within one worldwide structure if we decentralize ecclesial authority enough so that all church policies are subject to cultural and local accommodation. In contrast to fundamental beliefs, which are held by all church members, church policies are the practical applications of rules and standards that vary from country to country, from culture to culture, and over time. The organizational model of the General Conference is best seen as a federation of semi-independent union conferences that are best equipped to apply the rules, policies, and standards of the church within their cultures or local traditions. If Adventists see themselves as having one unique mission (i.e., to communicate a special end-time message to all the world), then how this is done and by whom can be decided by the local entities. Such details need not be imposed by administrators who live and function in a different world—which was, in fact, the major reason for the creation of union conferences in 1901.

Third, for the sake of unity in Christ based on our understanding of the priesthood of all believers (which is a strong impulse in presbyterian governance), we need to reappraise our understanding of what it means to be an ordained leader. At the heart of our understanding of the gospel is the message that church leaders are not to be masters but, rather, servants of the people (Matt. 20:25-27). It is natural, in an episcopal form of church governance, for church leaders to wield more and more authority. Hierarchical upward mobility is perceived as a blessing of God. That natural tendency must be checked, and we should consider seriously the value of term limits on church leadership positions at all levels—something commonly done in the presbyterian system.

Fourth, because the Protestant principle of the priesthood of all believers will often create tension within a hierarchical episcopal church structure, we need to rethink the roles of our church leaders. The title of “president” held by our top leaders is functionally a synonym for “bishop,” given their roles and functions. That title assumes authoritative role and functions. Should we reconsider what our presidents do and reshape our administrative structure to give them the role of moderator or general secretary instead? Such a change would transform the dynamics of our committees and require a rewrite of our Church Manual and policies, but it would immediately add value to the voice of lay people on all committees, and it would enhance the servanthood principle of our leadership positions.

Lastly, the most important spiritual gifts needed by church leaders in an episcopal structure at risk of schism are humility, gentleness, meekness, servanthood, and repentance. May God grant these gifts of his Spirit to all of us.


  1. A good explanation of the various models can be found in Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), pp. 249-317.
  2. “Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Beliefs,” Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (Silver Spring, MD: Secretariat, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2016), p. 166.
  3. Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, pp. 24-30.
  4. Reinder Bruinsma, The Body of Christ: A Biblical Understanding of the Church (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2009), p. 99.
  5. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers, p. 302.
  6. Many ecumenical documents have admitted the second-century roots of the episcopal model. See, for example, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, Faith and Order Paper No. 111 (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982), p. 24.
  7. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers, p. 267.
  8. ibid., p. 302.
  9. Church Manual, p. 31.
  10. ibid.
  11. ibid., pp. 36, 40.
  12. ibid., p. 77.
  13. ibid., p. 50.
  14. ibid., pp. 120-121.
  15. In the United States, the Columbia Union Conference and the Pacific Union Conference have decided to practice gender-inclusive ordination. Some conferences (Oregon, South Atlantic) in other union conferences have also allowed for men to be commissioned as pastors rather than ordained. In Europe, some countries practice gender-inclusive ordination while some countries have attempted to discontinue ordination altogether.
  16. Some conferences have practically eliminated any of the restrictions for commissioned ministers in the performance of certain functions reserved for ordained ministers: the ordination of local elders and deacons, the organization of new congregations, and the supervision of disciplinary actions of church members. Some union conferences have also asked to eliminate the restriction that a conference president must be an ordained minister.
  17. In his most recent book, George R. Knight provides a good history and interpretation of these various changes to Adventist ecclesiology. See Adventist Authority Wars, Ordination, and the Roman Catholic Temptation (Westlake Village, CA: Oak and Acorn Publishing, 2017).

Denis Fortin is professor of historical theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and a teaching pastor at One Place Fellowship on the campus of Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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